MILWAUKEE – When the PGA Championship returns in five years to Whistling Straits the rules on playing the countless bunkers may still be in place.
The golf world was still reeling Monday over the two-shot penalty given to Dustin Johnson on the final hole. He grounded his 4-iron in the sand to the right of the fairway, not aware he was in a bunker.
Johnson had a one-shot lead when he teed off on the 18th. He missed a 7-foot par putt and seemed to slip into a playoff. But when he learned he had let his club touch the sand during his preshot routine, Johnson added two shots to his score and tied for fifth.
Asked if there was any consideration to change the unusual local bunker rule for 2015, PGA of America president Jim Remy said, “Not at this point.”
“Obviously, it’s the day after,” Remy said. “I’m sure (championship director) Kerry Haigh will do his due diligence. He made the decision not to do it from 2004 to 2010. My guess is that probably the way we’re leaning is to leave it that way.”
It wasn’t the first time someone paid for the bunker rule at Whistling Straits.
When the PGA Championship was first played there in 2004, Stuart Appleby was penalized four shots late in the third round for removing a dead piece of grass (two shots) to the right of the 16th hole and touching the sand on a practice swing (two shots).
That didn’t cost him a major championship, though.
What never will be known is how Johnson would have fared in the three-hole playoff, which Martin Kaymer won over Bubba Watson. It was the most shocking finish involving rules at a major since Roberto de Vicenzo signed for a 4 when he had made a 3 on the 17th hole of the final round in the 1968 Masters. He had to accept the higher score and finished one shot behind Bob Goalby.
Johnson said he didn’t look at the rules sheet that had been posted all week in the locker room and on the first tee throughout the week, explaining that every bunker was a hazard, even if they were outside the ropes where the gallery had been standing.
“It was unfortunate for Dustin. I feel bad for him. He’s a PGA member, just like I am,” said Remy, the general manager of Okemo Valley Golf Club in Vermont. “I feel sad for him the way it all unfolded. But that’s the rules of golf. Those things happen in sports, and nobody feels good about it.”
Remy said he didn’t see a a practical solution for 2015, or in 2020 for the Ryder Cup.
“Do you mark 900 of them not as bunkers and 300 as bunkers? How do you ever mark them?” he said. “Clearly, with this happening, players will be more aware of it in the future. And we didn’t have any other infractions during the week.”
Players continued to weigh in on both sides.
“In light of PGA finish, Augusta just announced new seating for patrons available in right greenside bunker by 18 green,” Stewart Cink joked on Twitter.
PGA Tour rookie Kris Blanks, who missed the cut at the PGA, posted a picture of a child’s sandbox and suggested that would be considered a bunker at Whistling Straits.
Johnson tied for fifth, still enough for him to easily make the Ryder Cup team. The only way he would have failed to finish among the top eight qualifiers would have been to sign his card for a bogey and learn of the bunker gaffe later. Then, he would have been disqualified for signing an incorrect score.
“The one thing that I will remember from this more than anything is the way Dustin handled himself,” Pavin said. “He was very mature. I couldn’t imagine a player handling it any better than he did. He played beautiful golf on Sunday, put himself in position to win the tournament. I think it was the proper ruling. It was an unfortunate situation.”
Among the questions raised was whether the marshals should have done a better job clearing out the gallery around Johnson, which might have made it clearer to him that he was on the edge of a bunker.
Johnson thought it was grass that had been trampled all week by foot traffic.
The PGA rules official didn’t remind Johnson that he was in a bunker – if he even knew – although Paul Goydos pointed out that a rules official’s job is not to remind players of the rule, rather to interpret them if a player asks.
Goydos is not sure he would change the bunker rules for 2015.
“You’ve either got to say they’re all bunkers or they’re not bunkers,” Goydos said. “I don’t think you take into account that guys would hit the ball 75 yards off line. Maybe they could have cleared the gallery so he could see the bunker. It’s just a weird situation.”
Asked if the PGA could make a rule that anything outside the ropes is not a bunker, Goydos shook his head.
“Now you’re trying to call foul balls and fair balls,” he said.
After Johnson hit his 4-iron to the left of the 18th green into a difficult spot, he sent a magnificent flop shop to 7 feet. That gave him a chance – or so it seemed – to win his first major. Remy was standing behind the 18th green watching it all unfold when he heard radio traffic about a potential problem on the bunker shot.
It was not clear if PGA officials noticed the problem on the telecast or if someone alerted them to it.
Remy wasn’t sure what to think.
“I was aware of what was unfolding, but at that time, I didn’t know the outcome,” he said. “I knew there was a question. I was aware we were going to have to deal with the issue. But I wanted the putt to go in because I didn’t know what the ruling would be. I thought it would have been an epic finish to a great championship.”
And what if the putt had gone in?
“It didn’t,” Remy said. “But I sure thought about it.”